Ty Cobb and integrity in publishing

I recently purchased and read Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. I decided to get this book after watching Leerhsen’s lecture at Hillsdale college. I’d always thought of Ty Cobb as the racist curmudgeon portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in the 1994 film Cobb. Even before seeing this film, Ty Cobb’s reputation for being rotten was pervasive–when referring to him in Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson states, “No one liked that son of a bitch.

Unfortunately for Cobb (and anyone interested in the truth), these portrayals of the baseball great’s life and character are highly fictionalized. Most of the popular opinions of Ty Cobb come from two biographies: Charles C. Alexander’s Ty Cobb, and Al Stump’s Cobb. These author’s construct a narrative that depicts Cobb as a drunk, belligerent bully who used to sharpen his cleats and scream racial epithets at his hired help.

Leerhsen does a fantastic job addressing how these stories are more likely to be based on fiction than facts, pushed by the authors to increase their book sales. After all, a baseball star who is a racist jerk will elicit a (well deserved) sense of outrage and disgust, thereby attracting more attention.

From the epilogue,

This Cobb was someone they could shake their head at, denounce, and feel superior to. Spinning stories in a way that made him look immoral was a convenient way to say, “I am not a racist because I reject this man who is.” Cultures change as values change, wars are waged and the harvest waxes and wanes, but a villain who inspires self-congratulation makes for one hell of a tenacious myth.

The tragedy of Ty Cobb’s narrative is the insightful baseball and general life lessons the man had to offer. Leerhsen distills Cobb’s philosophy on baseball into two words: pay attention. Cobb would spend endless hours mentally rehearsing the game, taking notes, and thinking up possible scenarios and plays. He also paid attention to the minds of his opponents.

Another example from Leerhsen,

After [Cobb] noticed how upset the good-hearted Big Train got when he beaned batters, Cobb stood in against him as he did against nobody else, hunching over the plate and sticking his head into the strike zone. He could have gotten killed; instead, very often, he got walked.

Anyone who has read Moneyball and knows the importance of walks and on-base percentage sees the genius of Ty Cobb at work here.

The takeaway lesson I have from this book isn’t actually from the book. It was a woman who stood and gave praise during the Q&A portion of Leerhsen’s lecture,

…you’ve written a cautionary tale that in a complicated political season has a lesson for us…what happened to Ty Cobb could not happen today because everybody knows everything, but it does happen. So thank you for your courage in writing a book that reminds us that we don’t know everything until we really know somebody and that everything that we think we know we should re-examine several times with a clear conscience and our own integrity before we make those judgments. Thank you very much…

The last portion of this statement resonated with me while reading an article from FiveThirtyEight, “We Used Broadband Data We Shouldn’t Have — Here’s What Went Wrong“.

The reason this article is important,

We should have been more careful in how we used the data to help guide where to report out our stories on inadequate internet, and we were reminded of an important lesson: that just because a data set comes from reputable institutions doesn’t necessarily mean it’s reliable.

An article like this takes courage. In the era of ‘Fake News’ and ‘alternative facts’, it’s refreshing to see this kind of honesty from a media source that relies so much on evidence-based reporting. I imagine an article like this must’ve been painful to write, but I respect the authors more after reading it. That’s when I thought of the comment from Leerhsen’s lecture, and when I noticed how important it is to think about valuing integrity.

Wikipedia defines integrity in ethics as, “the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.” I tend to think of it as, “doing what you know is right even when no one is looking.”

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